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Exploring Israel's diversity

Student Voices

Photo for Exploring Israel

Picking apples in Buk'ata, a Druze village in the Golan Heights. Photo courtesy of Marisol Fernandez

Semitics Master's student Marisol Fernandez ‘16 first encountered Israel's diverse communities while studying Hebrew in Jerusalem. Last summer, she delved deeper into the mosaic of Israeli society while learning Arabic in Haifa.

Two years ago, I spent six months studying Hebrew at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem thanks in part to a grant from the Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies. It was my first time in Israel and I was excited to learn firsthand about the intricacies of everyday life in Israel.

Overall it was a great experience. And one that taught me a lot about Israeli society. The Hebrew University is situated very close to East Jerusalem, which meant I had the opportunity to interact with Israeli-Jews, Israeli-Palestinians, Palestinian inhabitants of East Jerusalem, Druze, and Bedouin. I first became interested in studying Arabic while in that linguistic melting pot.

During my time at the Hebrew University, I also had the opportunity to travel. During my journeys outside of Jerusalem, I truly realized how prevalent Arabic is in Israel. I took a trip to Nazareth and was shocked to find that most, if not all, of the signs were written in Arabic. I remember going into a bakery and failing to find anyone who spoke either Hebrew or English. I learned this is typical in many Arab villages in the country. The same goes for cities whose populations are majority Israeli-Jews - with some exceptions of course: Tel Aviv, Haifa, and The Old City of Jerusalem.

I also came to realize that the new generation of young people that has been most successful at tackling the issues facing minorities within Israeli society include those that can speak both languages and who are capable of connecting multiple communities. I decided I wanted to be part of this conversation and returned to Israel this past summer to study Arabic.

I chose Haifa because I had been told it was a city where there was greater interaction between the diverse inhabitants of Israel. With the support of the Y&S Nazarian Center, I left to study at the University of Haifa in August. Four days a week we went to class from 8am to 3pm and every Tuesday we went on a field trip. With my classmates from various religious groups and nationalities, I visited the Golan Heights, the local Druze villages behind the university and Akko, the historic city also known as Acre.

But I also took advantage of my second trip to Israel to conduct research on interfaith couples. I interviewed couples from Haifa, Shfaram – an Arab town about 30 Kilometers east of Haifa, Qiryat Shmona – a city located in the Northern District of Israel, and younger couples at the university. I asked students to tell me about their experiences and what they anticipate for the coming years in regards to relationships between Israeli-Jews, Israeli-Palestinians, Druze and Bedouins.

Most students at the university weren't as optimistic as I would have expected. One Israeli-Palestinian student explained to me that although Israeli-Palestinians, Druze, Bedouin, and Israeli-Jews work together in employment spaces and study together in universities, they usually do not form friendships. He explained that even within the Israeli-Palestinian minority there is a divide among Christians and Muslims.

Despite the pessimism I encountered, I learned about many new initiatives that are bringing together different groups of Israeli society through education and art. Some of them include the Hand in Hand Schools, the Abraham Fund, and Jerusalem Art. And that left me hopeful.

Overall, I learned a lot from the Arabic program, but even more from the people. I enjoyed Haifa so much that I plan to return to do another Master's degree in Diplomacy Studies if I can find sufficient funding. And if I can, I’m sure I will learn even more.

Note: The minority dynamics in Israel are very complicated. Although I placed Druze into one group, the Druze community in Israel is divided into two groups: Druze Citizens of the State of Israel and Druze residents of the State of Israel who although offered citizenship by Israel, pledge allegiance to Syria and have not accepted Israeli citizenship. As for the Bedouin community, all of the Bedouin have been granted Israeli Citizenship.

Marisol Fernandez is currently pursuing an MA in Semitics at UCLA. She completed her BA in Middle Eastern Studies with a minor in Hebrew/Jewish Studies in Spring 2016. She hopes to pursue another Master’s degree in Diplomacy Studies at the University of Haifa next year.